Biography

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Like Anthony Trollope, Robert Smith Surtees (SURT-eez) re-created in his novels a limited but significant phase of the social milieu of his time. The world of his fiction, although small, is admirably self-contained and complete in every detail within its boundaries of the kennel and the stable, the hunting fields and the drawing rooms of the English “squirearchy.” Against this background he presented a cross-section of Victorian society: The aristocracy entrenched behind barriers of caste and privilege, the new middle class trying to rise above its origins in trade, tuft-hunters and amiable blackguards aping the gentry and living at the expense of their social betters, sturdy yeoman farmers, the laboring tenantry, and comic yokels. These people fill a series of sporting novels lively with humor and pungent with that flavor of satire which was Surtees’ strong point.

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Descended from an ancient country family that took its name from the River Tees, Surtees was born at The Riding, Northumberland, on May 17, 1803. His boyhood was spent at Hamsterley Hall, near Durham, a seventeenth century manor bought by his father in 1810. A younger son without prospects of inheritance, he was educated at Ovingham School and at the Durham Grammar School, and in 1822 was articled to a solicitor at Newcastle-on-Tyne in preparation for a career in law. Three years later he transferred to the office of another solicitor in Bow Churchyard, London. Admitted in Chancery in 1828, he abandoned law for journalism a year later and became a hunting correspondent for Sporting Magazine.

His first book, combining his knowledge of law with his interest in sport, was The Horseman’s Manual, published in 1831. In the same year his older brother died, and Surtees became the heir to Hamsterley, a change of fortune which probably influenced his decision to join Rudolph Ackermann in founding the New Sporting Magazine, which he edited until 1836. For the third issue of the magazine, in July, 1831, he wrote the first of the humorous sketches dealing with John Jorrocks, the sporting Cockney grocer of Great Coram Street. This series, continued until September, 1834, proved so popular that the publishing house of Chapman and Hall planned a similar miscellany which resulted in Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). Opposed to repeal of the Corn Laws, Surtees stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1837. Following his father’s death in 1838, he returned to Hamsterley to lead the life of a country landlord and hunting squire. He married in 1841 and in the following year was appointed a justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant for Durham County. He was also for a time a major in the Durham Militia, an experience he later satirized in his account of the Heavysteed Dragoons. He became high sheriff of Durham County in 1856.

A shy, unsentimental, taciturn man, Surtees, after The Horseman’s Manual, would not allow his name to be used in connection with his books. Published anonymously, the Jorrocks sketches were collected in 1838 as Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities. On its appearance the book was completely eclipsed by the greater popularity of Pickwick Papers, which had been published a year before, so much so that friendly critics were forced to defend the author of Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities against charges of plagiarism. The third edition of 1843 contained the fifteen colored plates by Henry Alken which have become the familiar illustrations of this humorous classic. The adventures of Jorrocks were continued in Handley Cross, also published in 1843 but not expanded to its full proportions until 1854. This book, now considered Surtees’ masterpiece, received little attention at the time; the reappearance of Jorrocks as a Master of Fox Hounds gave Surtees every opportunity to ridicule social snobbery and the idea that fox hunting was a fashionable sport to be enjoyed only by the rich. A snobbish age repaid him with its neglect. Jorrocks made his last appearance in Hillingdon Hall, where as a country squire he was allowed to voice Surtees’ own views on agriculture and reform. The election of his hero to Parliament at the end of the novel hints that Surtees may have intended to continue the series with an account of the Cockney grocer in politics. If so, the plan was abandoned. Instead, Hillingdon Hall was followed in 1846 by The Analysis of the Hunting-Field, a collection of sporting sketches of a rather technical nature, and in 1847 by Hawbuck Grange.

Surtees’ first real success came in 1853 with Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour. Here the ancient rogue story is transformed into a satirical comedy of manners, with a cast that includes aristocratic bores and wastrels, ambitious social climbers, dishonest horse dealers, patronizing masters of hounds, and the raggle-taggle of the army and the stage. This was the first of Surtees’ books to be illustrated by John Leech, whose drawings for Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour and later novels are almost as familiar as the author’s text. The novel had been serialized in the New Monthly Magazine, edited by William Harrison Ainsworth. Ainsworth, eager to print another work by Surtees, had contracted for the publication of “Young Tom Hall, His Heartbreaks and Horses.” Before many installments had appeared, however, Ainsworth printed an advertisement giving Surtees’ name as the author of the new serial. Surtees was angry and Ainsworth tactless; as a result Surtees stopped work on the novel, which promised to be one of his best. Although the book was never completed, it was not a total loss: “Ask Mamma” and “Plain or Ringlets?” contain a few characters and several episodes he was able to salvage for later use. These novels are decidedly inferior to Handley Cross and Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour and reveal too plainly the patchwork of their design. Surtees was once more at his best in Mr. Facey Romford’s Hounds, a comic hunting novel and sly satire in which Mr. Sponge and Lucy Glitters, his actress wife, reappear. Surtees did not live to see his last novel in print. At work on an autobiographical work to be called “Sporting and Social Recollections,” he and his wife went to Brighton for a short holiday. He died there on March 16, 1864.

Surtees is not one of the eminent Victorians. His field was limited, and he had no imagination for anything which lay outside his own experience. He knew the town as well as the country, however, and he had seen the agricultural England of his youth transformed by the development of the railway and the growth of factories. Writing of these things, he became what most of the major Victorians, except William Makepeace Thackeray, were not, a social historian and a novelist of manners. His true genius, however, was in creating the comic character; among English novelists he is second only to Dickens in this respect. Jorrocks, in the gallery of great humorous characters, stands only a few notches below Falstaff, Parson Adams, Mr. Pickwick, and Mr. Micawber. Mr. Sponge and Facey Romford are rogues, but their vulgarity and cunning point to the underlying spirit of an age.

Bibliography

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Collison, Robert L. A Jorrocks Handbook. London: Coole Book Service, 1964. A guide to Surtees’ comic invention.

Gash, Norman. Robert Surtees and Early Victorian Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Places Surtees in his historical and cultural context.

Neumann, Bonnie Rayford. Robert Smith Surtees. Boston: Twayne, 1978. An intellectual and literary biography.

Watson, Frederick. Robert Smith Surtees: A Critical Study. 1933. Reprint. Nunney, Somerset, England: Robert Smith Surtees Society, 1991. An overview study of the spectrum of Surtees’ work.

Welcome, John. The Sporting World of R. S. Surtees. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Concentrates on Surtees’ hunting writing.

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